winter holidays 2004

our winter holidays in New England
were the stuff of Rockwell paintings
snow heavy on fir trees
branches cracking from the weight
sucking icicles, despite my mother’s warnings

I a child who desired
a painting-perfect Christmas
drew elf footprints in the window-frost
dreamt of plum puddings, nutcrackers
a real live tree, dark-green scented
hung with blazing candles

my parents dreamt of Christmas in Ceylon
fireworks near the ocean’s edge
warm sunny days like all the others
heads covered in an island church
rice flour hoppers steamed with egg
or sweetened coconut cream
chopped fruit and nuts for rich cake

in Connecticut, every succeeding year
brought more family, more children
presents piling under, splling out
from the tree in a bright confusion
so much food that stuffed, groaning,
the aunts swore they would cook less next year

I grew up, moved away, spent holidays
in Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, Salt Lake City
Salt Lake had the best snow — blinding white
crystalline crusts that broke with every boot step
Oakland cool and rainy, lush green grass
presaging forests of orange poppies
drifts of waist-high wild iris

spent late December days
with friends instead of family
built fires in the Oakland fireplace
raked damp leaves and dreamed of snow
chopped fruit for steamed plum pudding
which tasted just like my mother’s rich cake

now, in Chicago again, Kevin and I
invite friends for Thanksgiving
we trade recipes for squash soup
chipotle corn bread and savoury yams

we tell stories about last year
our first Thanksgiving with my family
after a decade of distance, arriving apprehensive
greeted by an avalanche of affection
uncle-handshakes, aunt-kisses, parental embraces
American dinner with all the trimmings
followed by a full Sri Lankan supper —
welcome, welcome, twice over

this year, autumn has been unsettling
America at war, overseas and at home
elections dividing state from state
neighbor from neighbor, friend from friend
we reach for tradition to bind us close
bright wrapping paper to bandage wounds

winter holidays will be brief this year
my visit to California with his family, our friends
cut short by job interviews in Philly
teaching in Vermont, a flight across the ocean
to Sri Lanka — at peace, after decades of war

I will go to the temples, the markets
see sparkling bangles and snake charmers
visit my mother’s house where once
fireworks were lit on Christmas Day
sit at the ocean’s edge and tell myself stories

I will come back to Kevin and Chicago
tired from my travels, longing for home
not the Christmas I imagined
as a small child making elf prints
on a frosted window
knowing he will be there, waiting
is better than I could have imagined

though we wander away, are lost, transformed
the ones we love remain our touchstones
we gather by the crackling fire and tell our stories
we see our faces, a little older each year
yet recognize the children we once knew
cherishing these dreams of winter holidays

— Mary Anne Amirthi Mohanraj, Christmas 2004

(with thanks to Ben Rosenbaum for timely critique)